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Early History 

emperor ming of the han dynasty

The story of tea begins in China. According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea. tea was first introduced to Japan, by Japanese Buddhist monks

It is impossible to know whether there is any truth in this story. But tea drinking certainly became establishedin China many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west. Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty(206 BC - 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China. It became such a favourite that during the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch'a Ching, or Tea Classic. It was shortly after this that tea was first introduced to Japan, by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study. Tea drinking has become a vital part of Japanese culture, as seen in the development of the Tea Ceremony

More Recent history                                                                  

It was only after the Portuguese maritime powers opened up the trade routes to the Far East that tea was introduced to Europe. The Dutch, German and British then established trading houses such as the Dutch East India Company, that brought tea into the commercial world. China, India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were the main sources of tea then and the best teas still come from these countries.
By 1658 tea was still slow to catch on in England. This was due to the British East India Company who controlled all imports to Britain. However tea was definitely available by this stage but tea was not a well known substance. 
It was not until 1664 when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess) that tea was seen as a desirable drink in England. Catherine was a ‘tea addict’ and it was partly down to her love of tea that it established itself among the wealthy in England. Wanting to capitalise on its popularity, the East India Company made its first import of 100lbs of tea shipped from Java.
By the late 17th Century tea was becoming a more and more popular drink. However there was a high tax on tea that meant that not everyone could afford it and this led to illegal smuggling of tea into Britain.  This high tax was still too much for the lower classes and they could not afford to buy tea although it was something they strongly desired. It soon became evident that the illegal importing of tea was a problem when over half of the tea imported into England was done illegally. Therefore in 1784 the taxation was reduced again making tea far more affordable and the illegal smuggling stopped almost instantly.
Throughout the 19th Century tea became the nation’s drink in England and was imported from India as well as China.In 1834, the East India Trading Company lost their monopoly on trade with China by act of British Prime Minister Charles Grey (Earl Grey). Tea was then grown in Assam in India and by 1839 there was the first auction of Assam tea in Britain.
In 1858 the British Government took over India and the East India Trading Company. They were still enthusiastic about tea and continued to import tea from India, not just from Assam but other areas too. By 1888 tea imports from India to Britain were greater than from China.

1900 - Today   

In 1901 the consumption of tea in England had tripled from 2lbs per head in 1851 to 6lbs per head! By this stage there were cheaper imports from areas such as Sri Lanka (then Ceylon, a British Colony). Popularity had majorly grown in Britain. Teabags were accidently invented by Thomas Sullivan in 1908 when he sent tea in silk bags to his clients and they steeped the tea without taking it out of the bag.
During the first and second world wars tea was controlled by the British Government to ensure that the nation would not run out of its favourite drink and that it would remain affordable.
In 1970 tea sold in teabags became immensely popular and still remain a popular of drinking tea today. Today in England alone, 2.1Kg of tea per head per year is consumed.

This article reproduced, inpart  with the kind permission of the UK Tea Council